Ben Jones analyses the knock of the tournament from a Pakistan star.
Trust Babar Azam.
Pakistan needed a hero today. It might not have looked like it by the end, as they won by an apparently comfortable six wickets. It might not have felt like it when they had the ball in hand, and New Zealand wickets were falling against Shaheen Afridi’s new ball brilliance. It might not be remembered in years to come, but in this chase, Pakistan were up against it. They needed a hero.
Sure, they were going after a low total. But something had happened to that Edgbaston pitch that wasn’t normal, that we don’t normally see in Birmingham in this sort of match. Mitchell Santner’s opening over had an average of 6.9° spin off the pitch; that’s the most of any over from a finger-spinner in ODI cricket since August 2018. This was a pitch that was offering bowlers – bowlers who would typically be negged with the use of “canny” and “accurate” – prodigious, significant spin. It was surprising as well, that the average deviation off the surface for the spinners was 4.2°, the highest figure for any ODI at Edgbaston since that data has been recorded. Out of nowhere.
But of all that was in hand. Babar Azam was in control.
In the history of the ODI format, only one man – Hashim Amla, a great of the game – has reached a career total of 3,000 runs quicker than Babar. He has arrived in international cricket with an ability to make runs that very few people possess as they start their careers at the top level. Plenty go through an entire lifetime without reaching these heights.
Today, he became the second youngest Pakistan batsmen ever to make a century at a World Cup. Saleem Malik in 1987 was about 60 days younger when he made 100 (95) against Sri Lanka – but this wasn’t against an attack like that. This was against the quickest bowler in the world, the best new ball bowler in the world, and a high quality spinner on a deck that was spitting and gripping. Without question, this was one of the great Pakistani centuries.
At CricViz, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to use the detailed data we have to tell different stories. We don’t want to say what’s happened, we want to tell you why it’s happened. There’s so much rich detail available, so many quirks and turns of events that can be recorded, which haven’t been previously. One of these details comes out in the form of a Timing Rating for players, a figure built around how often a player makes a good contact with the ball, and the resulting score from those shots. It’s rated out of 100, and in our entire database only two players have registered 100 as a Timing Rating. One is AB de Villiers, and the other as I think you’ll have guessed, is Babar Azam.
It’s a stat that tells you in three figures what your gut could tell you in an instant. One shot, on drive on the up, one crisply middled push through the covers is all you really need to know that here is a man who hits the ball differently. It doesn’t sound different like when Jos Buttler hits it; it doesn’t look different, like when Steve Smith hits it; when Babar Azam gets it right, it feels different.
We didn’t feel it much today, in truth – but when we did, oh how we did. Babar held his nerve, held the absolute peak of his timing back, until he turned it up in the 42nd over. A pair of sweeps off Mitchell Santner, who until that point in the day had gone for next to nothing, were dismissive to the point of rudeness, crisply struck derision at the pretence of this chase being a contest. Very, very few players in the world have the ability that Babar has. Very, very few players could have done what he did.
It’s the greatest indicator of a player’s class. Since the last ICC tournament, the Champions Trophy in 2017, roughly 30 players have made 1,000 or more ODI runs. It’s a reasonable cut off to distinguish the top-class players in the game, those who have consistently achieved things at this level. Of those players only three men have made their runs with a lower false shot percentage than Babar. Those men are Kane Williamson, Joe Root, and Virat Kohli, the absolute elite of the game. Babar hasn’t achieved anything like what those three have done across all formats, but in the 50 over game he is their contemporary. He has earned the right to be discussed in their company.
Babar has made 10 ODI centuries. They’ve come over four calendar years, against six oppositions in five countries. He has proven his worth, and his quality is not in doubt. But none of those 10 centuries have seen him err as often as he did today. Over his 127 balls, he played a false shot 16.1% of the time – he has never played more while compiling a century. For a man who is so immaculate in his execution, so precise in the way he approaches his batting, that is a figure out of nowhere. It’s not what he wanted to happen – this wasn’t calculated risk. This was a wedge of good fortune coming the way of a player who has done nothing but deserve it for a long time now.
Because Babar does more than most people do, you know. According to CricViz’s Wicket Probability Model, which uses historical ball-tracking data to give every delivery a percentage chance of taking a wicket/ leading to a run, the deliveries that were bowled to Babar today should have lead to 107 runs, but also to 3.3 wickets. The average batsman, facing the balls that Babar faced today, would have been dismissed more than three times. Babar Azam, is not your average batsman.
Pakistan aren’t your average team, of course. The patronising nonsense of their “mercurial” nature can be left at the door, in all honesty – they are a good team, with several extremely good cricketers in their ranks. Mo Amir has been consistently their best player in this tournament, the man most likely to carry them through to the knock-outs. Wahab Riaz has had his moments, not least defeating the World No.1 side in a game that feels like it took place four years ago. Even Shaheen Afridi, lamented and criticised after an abject new ball performance against Australia , came through and made a decisive contribution today. Pakistan have too much quality in their ranks to describe them as “mercurial”. They’re just good.
But when it came down to it, they needed to be able to place their faith in someone who couldn’t ever be described as mercurial. Sure, he’s a cover-driver, but you don’t make as many runs as him in as few matches without a serious wedge of consistency. You don’t produce so much in such a short space of time without being a player of generational ability, of stylish substance, of historical significance.
Trust in Babar Azam. He won’t let you down.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.